A piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the American House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill (see link below) to allow government money to be used for repairing houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The bill, approved last week by a vote of 354 to 72, had support from Roman Catholic and Jewish organizations. It was opposed by 66 Democrats and 6 Republicans.
(Passage in the Senate, which is necessary to bring the bill to Obama for signing into law, isn’t yet assured.)
The disparity in political parties here is no surprise: Republicans are more often faith-heads. But what happened to religious organizations favoring the separation of church and state? Oh, right—that goes out the window if every faith can benefit equally.
This is, indeed, a violation of the First Amendment, for it uses taxpayer money to fix churches, and that’s a benefit to the church. Churches already enjoy benefits that I consider a violation of the Constitution: ministers’ housing for instance, is tax free, while Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, though they run a nonprofit secular organization, don’t get tax-free housing. And neither should I, as an atheist, have to pay to fix up a storm-damaged church. Isn’t such damage, after all, an “act of God”?
The House bill adds houses of worship to the list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for disaster relief. Federal law already allows such aid to museums, zoos, performing-arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters and other private nonprofit entities that provide “essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”
The House bill would apply to property damaged by the storm and damage from future disasters.
Under the bill, “a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization,” would be eligible for federal disaster assistance “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”
Museums, zoos, libraries, and homeless shelters are public goods, to which we all should contribute. Religion is not. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in charge of helping finance restoration of areas damaged by natural disasters, has historically refused to fix up houses of worship, except for those parts that provide social services. FEMA is opposed to this bill, too, on the ground that it would force them to make impossible decisions between “worship space” and “secular space”. Does fixing up a roof, for example, protect only the secular parts of a church?
And here’s a distinction without a difference:
The speaker of the New York City Council, Christine C. Quinn, had unsuccessfully urged FEMA to change its regulations without legislation, writing in a letter to the agency: “Recovery from a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy isn’t a matter of state sponsoring religion. It’s a matter of helping those in need after one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever seen.”
Well, can’t churches and synagogues buy insurance like the rest of us?
In the end, it comes down to this:
But Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said: “This bill would direct federal taxpayer dollars to the reconstruction of houses of worship. The idea that taxpayer money can be used to build a religious sanctuary or an altar has consistently been held unconstitutional.”
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, saying it was a bedrock principle of constitutional law that “taxpayer funds cannot go to construct, rebuild or repair buildings used for religious activities.”
This is just another attempt to breach the American wall between church and state, and give unconscionable and unconstitutional privilege to religion.
If you choose to write or call your Senator, who will be voting on the bill soon, you can find his/her contact information here; the bill is H. R. 592. I expect that the Freedom from Religion Foundation will have something to say about this.
In other news, a cat and a DVD drive fought to a standstill.